When Roy Wadding sits down at a bar, he makes sure to scan the draft selection before ordering a beer.
His eyes zip from one tap handle to the next, searching for something different, something he has never tried before.
“I see something new and I gravitate to it,” the 51-year-old Tampa., Fla., man said recently at a Winking Lizard Tavern in Columbus.
Such is the power of an eye-catching tap handle.
Breweries have tried for decades to attract attention by making tap handles larger and more colorful, but the microbrewery movement has brought a proliferation of artsy and exotic ones. Some are full-fledged artwork, a small brewery’s main advertising and a way to entice beer drinkers to sample a specific brand in the competitive craft market — specialty brews typically made in small regional or local breweries — which grew 11 percent in the first six months of this year.
Take Goose Island Brewing Co. in Chicago, for example. It has a long ceramic handle sculpted in the shape of a squawking goose. Three Floyds Brewing Co. in Hammond, Ind., has one with a 22-karat gold crown. Wychwood Brewery Co. Ltd. in Oxfordshire, England, has a hideous, bug-eyed hobgoblin hugging a giant sword. And Wellington Brewery in Guelph, Canada, has a rubber boot.
You name it and it’s been fashioned into a tap handle: Orca. Saxophone. Bloody hatchet. Pelican. Lightning bolt. Rocket ship. Hockey glove. A turtle floating on a raft. Frog leg. Lighthouse with working light. Lobster claw.
With so many craft beers available, breweries are designing the tap handles to distinguish themselves from their peers in some bars that can feature 20, 50 and even 100 or more different beers on draft.
About 10 percent of all beer sold in the United States is on draft, including kegs sold retail.
“When I sit at the bar and watch people come in, the first thing they look at are what taps you have,” said John Lane, a partner with the Cleveland-based Winking Lizard Tavern, which has 12 locations in Ohio. “The tap handle is like a trophy.”
It hasn’t always been that way.
The U.S. government began requiring bars to identify the beer they were selling only after Prohibition because of concern that some drinkers were paying for one brand and ending up with another. Breweries created “ball knobs” emblazoned with their logos and brands to serve as tap markers.
Those knobs evolved into handles. Some breweries got creative, such as Hamm’s adding its mascot — a black and white bear — to its tap handle. Others jumped on sports themes, with Anheuser-Busch Cos. using baseball and Labatt using hockey.
But the tap handles really got inventive with the craft beer movement in the late 1980s and 1990s when microbreweries and brewpubs popped up across the country. Knowing they didn’t have the advertising budgets of major brewers that produce Budweiser, Miller and Coors, the craft brewers tried to attract attention anyway they could, including making unusual tap handles.
Today there are 1,371 craft breweries in the country, with annual retail sales of craft beer hitting $4.3 billion last year, according to the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colo. While craft beers hold only about 3.5 percent of the overall beer market in the United States, the segment of industry is growing.
Craft beer sales are up 11 percent in the first six months of this year, following increases of 9 percent last year and 6.9 percent in 2004.
Companies that produce tap handles, including Tap Handles Inc. in Renton, Wash., and Mark Supik & Co. in Baltimore, agree that customers are asking for more custom handles, which can cost anywhere from $15 to a couple hundred dollars depending on the number ordered and complexity. The small breweries are especially interested in producing something different.
“They are relying on that handle as their primary advertising vehicle,” said Mark Gentzen, general manager for Tap Handles, which produces about 200,000 a year. “If you’re a Budweiser fan, you’ve already made up your mind and the tap handle itself doesn’t need to be as exotic. But with smaller microbrews, you may have never heard about them and you’re making a decision at the point of buying the drink.”
Yet even Anheuser-Busch, the maker of the country’s best-selling brand, Bud Light, has created quirky handles for its line of seasonal craft beers that include Beach Bum Blonde Ale and Jack’s Pumpkin Spice Ale. Jack’s features a large scarecrow with a pumpkin for a head.
“We know there is a lot of clutter in the draft market and a lot of taps,” said Pat McGauley, vice president of innovation at Anheuser-Busch. “It’s really important to have your tap stand out.”
Breweriana collector George Baley, who wrote the book “Vintage Beer Tap Markers: Ball Knobs, 1930s-1950s,” estimated that there are between 25,000 and 40,000 different handles.
Experts aren’t sure what the future holds for tap handle innovation. The handles can’t get much bigger or wider since they have to fit into a confined space.
Kathleen Kelly, a marketing professor and director of the Center of Business Ethics and Social Issues at Colorado State University, said tap handles are a good way to promote a brand, especially for niche marketers, and probably cheaper than mass media advertising.
Brewers also have started to focus more on on-premise sales at bars and restaurants because they have been losing out to wine and liquor, said Eric Shepard, executive editor of Beer Marketer’s Insights, a trade publication that covers the industry. Tap handles are a natural way to attract drinkers, just as posters and signs are, he said.
There’s no way to quantify whether the handles really help drive sales, Shepard said.
“I think you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a correlation but it does help the romance of the product so why not do it,” he said.
Several brewers, though, insist it helps.
Draft sales at Stevens Point Brewery in Stevens Point, Wis., jumped nearly 24 percent after it changed the type of kegs it used and turned the brewery’s mascot — a pointy headed gnomish fellow — into an oversized tap handle. Brewery officials say the new handle helped sales — though they can’t say by how much — and customer reaction was positive.
When White Marsh Brewing Co. in suburban Baltimore started in 1997, brewmaster Mike McDonald decided to use a cow’s head as a tap handle for his Daily Crisis IPA. Customers started ordering a beer by pointing to the cow. The handle became so popular that customers started mooing for their beer, he said.
White Marsh has since retired the cow tap handle.
Not all beer drinkers, though, are taken in by tap handles.
“It’s the coldness and the cost. I could care less about the handle,” Tonya Vance, 42, of Columbus said at the Winking Lizard Tavern.
Baley, the collector, agreed — to a degree.
“It probably helps the first time that you drink the beer because you wouldn’t have tried it,” he said. “But if you are a connoisseur of beer, you’re going to find one that you like and it isn’t going to matter if there’s a funny picture or character on the handle.”